Words & photos by Wendy Lemlin
Sometimes you just need a break. Not a long vacation, but certainly more of a change of scenery than just hanging out in your own home. Get away from the kitchen, get away from the computer, and get away from all the little chores around the house that nag to be done when you just want to relax. I’m talking abdication of all responsibility, here, with a side order of pampering thrown in for good measure. You don’t even need to go away to get away, distance-wise, to be amazed at how a change of environment makes for a change in temperament. You just need a great staycation.
Because I’m lucky enough to live in San Diego, a place that people from elsewhere vacation to, planning a close-to-home staycation is loaded with fun possibilities. Add in the bonus of not having to stress about travel arrangements, lost luggage, and navigating unfamiliar territory, and a getaway in my own town takes on even more appeal.
To really feel like you’re stepping out of your everyday life, there’s nothing like a stay at a resort to put you in that “I’m-on-vacation” state of mind. Lounge around a pool, have a spa treatment (or two or three), play some tennis (or golf or whatever sport relaxes you), walk on the beach, dine at an elegant on-site restaurant, shop the boutiques, work out at the fitness center—-all at your fingertips. Comfortable, roomy accommodations with pillowtop beds, fine linens, and space to stretch out comfortably are also a prerequisite
By just about anyone’s reckoning, San Diego is a gem of a destination, so when my Significant Other, who lives in another state, came to town recently to celebrate my birthday, we took that as an opportunity to explore San Diego’s many facets as the tourists we aren’t.
Most visitors to San Diego head immediately for the beach, but I live in one of the beach communities, so, instead, we began our getaway by going inland, with a day-before-my-birthday stay at the very gracious Rancho Bernardo Inn.
An oasis of 280 acres of lushly landscaped tranquility incongruously abutting a
suburban neighborhood, RBI includes 287 guest rooms and suites, one of the finest full service spas around, pools, whirlpools, a well-equipped fitness center, tennis courts, and an 18 hole championship golf course that snakes its way through the neighboring subdivison. We were booked into one of the resort’s beautiful and airy deluxe king rooms, and upon entering, I was delighted to find a birthday bouquet of flowers from the Inn’s own gardens, a bottle of champagne, and chocolate covered strawberries, with a welcome and happy birthday note from guest services.
We were looking forward to what would normally be a warm, sunny day, lounging by the pools, taking turns under the therapeutic water cascade to relax neck and shoulder muscles made stiff from too many hours writing at the computer desk, and maybe even a poolside couples’ massage. The weather spirits had other ideas, however, and the torrential rains started just after our arrival and continued for most of the overnight stay. Did this ruin our visit? Not at all. It just made us appreciate our spacious room all the more. We drank our champagne, devoured the chocolate strawberries and spent quality time reconnecting after weeks apart. In between downpours, we strolled the gardens, nestled on couches in front of a roaring fireplace, and worked out at the fitness center.
Dinner was at Avant, the resort’s cozy signature restaurant. We began with cocktails— a fragrant and refreshing Lavender Lemonade made with Hendrick’s Gin for me, and a Goose’s Pear Martini for my S.O. For starters, I chose the Beet Cured Hamachi, tender pieces of the raw fish accented with tequila poached pear and a scattering of “popped” quinoa for a bit of crunchy texture. My main course featured
three seared “hand harvested” scallops, cooked to just the right degree of doneness—ie. almost raw, just the way I like them. The pomegranate seed garnish gave a nice splash of color and a touch of pleasing acidity to the otherwise monochromatic dish. S.O’s Filet Mignon was very successfully executed, with a coating of black trumpet mushroom powder, and served atop a base of spring vegetables with a sauce of oxtail consommé. Dessert was a sinfully delicious extravaganza: Bittersweet Chocolate Custard Tart topped with mascarpone mousse, and served with bits of flourless chocolate squares and housemade coffee ice cream on a hazelnut croquant. It was a good thing we had decided to split the rich dessert, because the kitchen sent out another plate of chocolate covered strawberries for a birthday treat.
Afterwards, when the rain turned to a barely-there drizzle, we finished our romantic, restful day with a long soak in the jacuzzi right by our room.
I’d love to say that my birthday dawned sunny and warm—and that we hurried over to our next stop, Tower 23 Hotel in Pacific Beach, to take full advantage of the oceanfront location with a long, lazy day at the beach—yes, I’d love to say that but I’ve always been a terrible liar. I will say, however, that another advantage of vacationing in your own town is that you can easily slip back home when the weather remains less than ideal, change into clothes other than the flimsy beach-appropriate attire you had packed in your overnight bag, and find other things to do than what was originally planned.
As it was drizzling, not pouring, we decided to spend a few hours exploring several of the museums in Balboa Park. The Museum of Photographic Arts, Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the Mingei Museum all kept us entertained and informed, and the prolific orchids and other fragrant plants in the Horticultural Building charmed our senses.
Birthday lunch was at Saigon on Fifth, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, in the park-adjacent Hillcrest neighborhood. We both ordered huge bowls of pho because the warm broth provided such a comforting antidote to the new wave of rainstorms thundering down outside.
Luckily, by the time we finished lunch, the rain had greatly abated, and it was time to check in at Tower 23 Hotel. Reflecting its location right on the boardwalk, Tower 23 has a stylishly hip, beachy vibe, more about fun and activity than quiet retreat. We started that activity right away, by walking up numerous flights of stairs to our 3rd floor room because the rain had caused the elevator to cease functioning, and it wouldn’t be fixed for several days. We really didn’t mind, but I felt sorry for the bellhops who had to carry everybody’s luggage up and down those concrete stairs.
Our oceanview room was contemporary in design with a “young at heart” aesthetic. The oversized whirlpool bathtub, filled by a cascade from the ceiling above, as I was later quite surprised to discover when I inadvertently found myself leaning under it as I searched for a way to turn on the water, seemed to act as a room divider between the sleeping/sitting area and the open bathroom. You could say it was the bathtub elephant in the room, not to be ignored, but beckoning alluringly in its own way. (The tub and bathroom could be curtained off from the rest of the room if guests insisted on privacy.)
The rain finally stopped as the sun started its nightly dip in the ocean, and there was a thin strip of clear sky at the horizon. We walked to the end of the nearby Pacific Beach pier to watch the surfers ply the storm-tossed waves in the sunset, and then made our way back for my birthday dinner at JRDN, the hotel’s beachfront restaurant. Always notable for its location, JRDN is currently experiencing a well deserved resurgence in popularity, thanks to the genius of exec chef DJ Tangalin.
I had been hearing great things about the chef, who had taken over the kitchen in May 2015, and was excited to try his cuisine. Not only was I not disappointed, it honestly was one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time.
As we perused the menu, Chef D.J. asked if he could do a tasting menu for us. We happily agreed, with the caveat that I don’t eat meat, and my S.O. doesn’t like seafood. That didn’t faze the chef at all. He consistently presented us with dishes that were spot on, and always with some unexpected component that intrigued and excited.
We started with a playful amuse bouche of crispy homemade cheddar crackers and jams—apple butter, and orange mostatta. My Apple Salad featured Mexican white shrimp nestled among thin slices of apples, Belgian endive, mustard frills, and grapes two ways—fresh, and in a rich gelee, which provided a lovely and unusual accent to the shrimp. Honey, lemon, fragrant cardamom and other spices dressed the salad.
S.O.’s Golden Beet Salad showcased the beets in a trio of preparations—slices of roasted golden beets, pickled red beet puree, and beet dust sprinkled over the quinoa, leeks, asparagus, and arugula that comprised the rest of the salad. I tasted both salads and was glad I didn’t have to decide on a preference—both were wonderful, with complex flavors and textures belying their seemingly simple preparations.
Next up for me was the umami-rich Paprika and Mushroom Glazed Octopus, with sherry glazed potato, aromatic vegetable sofrito, red pepper coulis, lime crema and a dollop of avocado mousse. Even my non-seafood eating S.O., who once told me he “would never eat snails or octopus”, took a small taste and declared it delicious. He also enjoyed his Foie Gras Mousse, although not normally a foie gras fan. The garnishes of rhubarb strawberry jam, Japanese peanuts, pickled celery and strawberry chips provided pleasing sweet and acid flavor profiles.
Then, an intermezzo: refreshing mango lime sorbet to cleanse our palates for the “main” courses.
I’m making a concerted effort here not to salivate all over my keyboard as I recall the Oven Roasted Mary’s Chicken and Pan Roasted Alaskan Halibut which we enjoyed immensely. The halibut was slightly crispy on the outside, flaky and moist on the inside, with a fresh, clean flavor that was enhanced by the small puddle of stinging nettle soup on which it rested. The roasted heirloom tomato and sea bean salad added complementary acidity and salinity, and the fingerling potatoes just a touch of starch. The big surprise was the ginger froth, which gave an Asian nuance to the standout dish.
For me, tarragon is a woefully under-utilized herb, and I love the way it pairs with poultry. Therefore, I was happy to taste the succulent roasted half chicken accentuated with creamy tarragon blanquette, and accompanied by nicely chewy quinoa taboule, fiddlehead ferns, roasted tomatoes, pickled mustard greens, and another surprise—small slices of patè de fruits. Both these preparations gave the halibut and chicken—proteins that I sometimes find marginally bland and unexciting—incredible pizzazz and flavor, and yet never were the fish or chicken overwhelmed, but instead made indelibly memorable.
Of course, there was dessert. The pleasingly light Lemon Bar was a very successful interpretation of the classic, featuring a square of chiffon cake topped with tart lemon mousse and meringue, encircled by squiggles of fruit jam and basil syrup. The Warm Chocolate Bouchon put us over the edge, in a good way. Made with 70% chocolate, it wasn’t overly sweet, just richly decadent, accompanied
by vanilla ice cream melting into the chocolaty deliciousness, a crunchy piece of chocolate cereal bark, and silky chocolate sauce. We were heading into food coma territory when a birthday red velvet cupcake arrived. We briefly considered saving it for breakfast, but we devoured that, too, figuring we’d work it off on the three story elevator-less trudge up to our room.
After dinner, we met friends in the adjacent bar, to continue the celebration. I found myself mesmerized by the waves of ever-changing colors on the rear wall that extends across the bar and dining room. Or maybe it was just the drinks…
Upon waking the next morning, we were relieved to find that the rain had stopped, and while still not beach-weather warm and sunny, we spent a lovely morning riding the bikes provided by Tower 23 until it was time to check out. We rode the entire boardwalk, from Pacific Beach to the jetties at the tip of Mission Beach, we rode the bike path around west Mission Bay, and we watched the tourists enjoying the historic wooden rollercoaster and other rides in Belmont Park. By the time we checked out and arrived back at my home from our unexpectedly fun staycation, the sun was beginning to peak through the clouds and San Diego was fresh and sparkling clean from her two day bath.